Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Syrian refugee crisis: America has a moral responsibility

Desperate Syrian refugees / Lost, afraid, unsure, disoriented, alone.

Imagine how you might feel if you were lost, afraid, unsure, disoriented, alone. Or, a parent trying to make sure your kids didn't starve. How desperate might you be if that person was you, a Syrian refugee?

As the leader of the free world, the United States has a moral responsibility to do its fair share to come to the aid of Syrian refugees seeking compassion after having been displaced from their home country. Yet, an irrational fear and political demagoguery from right-wing zealots brought on following the recent Paris terrorist attacks has replaced human kindness in my country.

Many democratic nations of the world are doing their fair part to admit and welcome Syrian refugees. For instance, Germany has already accepted 38,500 and Canada 36,300. In the days after the Paris attack, French President François Hollande said that his country would accept 30,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years. Meanwhile, the United States has pledged to take in a modest 10,000 Syrian refugees, a paltry figure compared to the compassion shown by our Canadian neighbors to the north and our European allies across the pond. We could -- and should -- do so much more.

And yet, one Republican Party candidate for President, Donald Trump, is calling for a ban on a Syrian refugees, calling them "Trojan horses" for terrorism, while another, Dr. Ben Carson, likens Syrians to "rabid dogs." The scapegoating of refugees by these American politicians is not only very aggravating, it's mean-spirited. Their demagoguery -- out and out fear mongering -- about the refugees is a very mean punch in our nation's collective gut. Ever since the Paris attacks, Trump has ratcheted the populist rhetoric all the while spewing lies and half-truths, channeling the anxieties of Americans into fear and hate.

"We are not well served when in response to a terrorist attack we descend into fear and panic," President Barack Obama said last week. He reinforced his position during a joint press conference with Mr. Hollande at the White House on Tuesday afternoon.

As The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote in his Sunday column, "As anti-refugee hysteria sweeps many of our political leaders, particularly Republicans, I wonder what they would have told a desperate refugee family fleeing the Middle East. You've heard of this family: a carpenter named Joseph, his wife, Mary, and their baby son, Jesus.

"According to the Gospel of Matthew, after Jesus' birth, they fled to save Jesus from murderous King Herod (perhaps the 2,000-year -ago equivalent of Bashar al-Assad of Syria?). Fortunately, Joseph, Mary and Jesus found de-facto asylum in Egypt -- thank goodness House Republicans weren't in charge when Jesus was a refugee!" 

A Syrian father tries to comfort his two children /
 Together, they are refugees yearning for freedom.
So far, more than 200,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict. What is happening in that ravaged, Middle East war-torn country is one of the largest humanitarian crises since World War II. These desperate Syrian refugees should be admired for their courage and seen in the same yearning for freedom as refugees from any other war-torn or repressed country.

Instead, here in the United States, thanks to the Islamic State's terrorizing strategy of "creating a wedge in the West between Muslims and non-Muslims," according to Kristof, an anti-Syrian backlash has been created and many "fear mongers" such as Trump, Carson and Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz are looking upon immigrants and refugees as the enemy. They are effectively trying to de-humanize every Syrian person, branding them as "Not Like Us."

Listen, the problem is not the Syrian refugees, the ones who are fleeing persecution from the barbaric acts and twisted ideology carried out by murderous ISIS radical jihadists. As I see it, the problem in America is a political clouding caused by partisan politics that's more than just prejudiced -- it's become downright xenophobic, with a lot of finger-pointing aimed at all Muslim people. It's an insult to the more than 1.5 billion Muslims who peacefully worship Islam throughout the world.

While security within the U.S. borders is a legitimate concern -- and we can't rule out the slim possibility that a terrorist might slip in with the refugees -- let's take a moment and put things into proper perspective. Refugee admission into the United States is the most deeply vetted pathway, one which can take a couple of years for the process to be completed. So, do you really think a terrorist will wait two years to try to infiltrate our borders as a refugee? Not very likely. A terrorist who really wants to attack America would more likely be sent to this country by ISIS or any other terrorist organization as a student or as a tourist, and I don't see any of my country's political leaders calling for a ban on international students coming to study in our prestigious colleges and universities, or a ban on tourists coming to visit America's vibrant cities. As some have rightfully suggested, security must be permeated, but "with common sense and a bit of heart."

I am in agreement with Kristof and applaud how he summed up his feelings: "To seek to help desperate refugees in a secure way is not naïveté. It's not sentimentality. It's humanity."

Indeed, it's humanity, a moral responsibility.

Photos: Courtesy of Google images. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Remembering Allen Toussaint: A great and good man

Allen Toussaint / A great and good man.

Over the past week, I've been reading many of the wonderful tributes that have been shared about legendary New Orleans musician and producer Allen Toussant, 77, who passed away earlier this month following a concert he performed in Madrid, Spain. It's given me a chance to reflect upon his music legacy.

A native of New Orleans, Toussaint was known equally for his masterful work as a pianist, composer, arranger and producer. Throughout his storied career, he embodied the traditions of New Orleans R&B music and was one of his city's most prolific and influential songwriters and producers.

David Simon, who created the HBO series The Wire and Treme, called Toussaint a "gentle, giving soul and one of the finest composers who ever created American music."

Toussaint could both compose and arrange music, and his piano-playing style was both imaginative and distinctive. As it happened, many of Toussaint's songs became familiar through versions by other musicians, including: "Working in the Coal Mine", "Ride Your Pony", "Fortune Teller", "Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues)", "Southern Nights", "Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky", "I'll Take a Melody", "Get Out of My Life, Woman", and "Mother-in-Law".

As a producer, Toussaint's credits include Dr. John's hit "Right Place, Wrong Time" and Labelle's "Lady Marmalade." Additionally, Toussaint contributed horn arrangements for the rock group The Band's 1972 'Rock of Ages' concert album, which is where I remember hearing of Toussaint for the first time. I liked what I heard.

"The horn arrangements he wrote for The Band became a staple of our sound from the Academy of Music/Rock of Ages concerts to The Last Waltz,"said Robbie Robertson, guitarist for The Band, in remembering Toussaint last week on his Facebook page. "He was not only a brilliant songwriter, record producer, piano man, arranger and performer; he was also one of the finest gentlemen I have ever known. I had the honor of inducting Allen into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and I couldn't find enough kind words to express how strongly I felt about him and his music."

Personally, I had the joyful experience of seeing Toussaint perform in concert twice: first, at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California, on June 20, 2006, as part of a tour he did with Elvis Costello in support of an album they collaborated on following Hurricane Katrina called 'The River in Reverse'; second, in a solo show he gave on May 11, 2007, at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco. Both were extremely joyful occasions, and I'm grateful for having had the chance to see Toussaint perform live.

On his Facebook page, Costello spoke eloquently of Toussaint: "I have been so lucky to spend even this little time with Allen Toussaint. Allen was unfailingly gracious, elegant and musically curious.

"We last shared the stage at the Civic Center in New Orleans in February of this year. As always, he was thoughtful, bringing a late Mardi Gras gift for my wife (the jazz musician Diana Krall) and asking after the well-being of my sons and my mother, who he had once visited on a trip around Merseyside.

"He signed off every note and phone call the same way; 'Looking Forward'.

"I will miss him very much."

In his recently-published memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, Costello devoted an entire chapter to his friendship with Toussaint and the recording of 'The River in Reverse' album. It is defintely worth a few minutes of your time to read:


A day after learning of Toussaint's death, I listened to 'The River in Reverse', an album which came about following the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. One of my favorite songs from this album is "Ascension Day." I came across a lovely video for "Ascension Day," which features inspired vocals by Costello and the soulful -- and at times rollicking -- but always harmonic playing by Toussaint on piano.

Allen Toussaint was a great and good man, who left this world much too soon. The world has lost a musical treasure that can never be replaced. Fortunately, his music and recordings live on. Like Elvis Costello and many others, I will miss him very dearly.

God rest your soul, Allen.

Learn more about Allen Toussaint:

Photo: Courtesy of WWNO/Google images. 
Video: Courtesy of YouTube.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Wendell Pierce: A soaring and eloquent voice speaks out about the redemptive and healing power of art

Wendell Pierce's memoir, 'The Wind in the Reeds:
A Storm, A Play, and the City That Would Not Be Broken'
is about the redemptive and healing power of art and
about New Orleans, a city he loves so dearly.

From his leading roles in HBO's The Wire and Treme to his feature film appearances in Selma, Ray and Waiting to Exhale, I've admired the work of the Tony Award-winning actor and producer Wendell Pierce for many years.

When I learned a few months ago that Pierce would be coming to the Bay Area to speak at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco on October 30, I marked it on my calendar and bought tickets to this Arts & Ideas lecture. For more than an hour last Friday evening, Pierce spoke in both a soaring and eloquent tone of voice about the redemptive and healing power of art and about New Orleans, the city of his birthplace and the origin of his creativity. It is a city that he loves so dearly.

Pierce has written a new memoir, The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, A Play, and the City That Would Not Be Broken, that is truly a page-turner.

'The Wind in the Reeds' is truly
a page-turner.
Both poignant and redemptive, in The Wind in the Reeds, Pierce tells the stories of his family, his city and his creative journey in the arts, and how they are all connected to one another. And, just as importantly, how they are "precious and worth saving, and how art has been critically important in revitalizing this unique American city."

On the back of the book's dust jacket, James McBride, author of The Color of Water and The Good Lord Bird, writes:

"This is more than a memoir. It's an adventure in history, encompassing the timeless elements that propelled this fourth-generation grandson of a slave into one of the most important dramatic actors of our age: family, art, truth, religion, and of course a mother's love. This is a story of sacrifice and blood struggle, of victory and selflessness, told with deep humility and grace by one of the most important American artists of our generation."

Pierce, 51, writes in his memoir: "We know who we are by the stories we tell about ourselves and our world. We know who we are through the family and community of whose stories we are a part.

"We make our stories. And our stories make us.

"I am not sure the stories of my family are art, exactly. After all, they came down to me not as objects to be admired for their beauty. Then again, they contain so much truth and goodness that they cannot help being beautiful as well. Their trials, their triumphs, the virtues that gave them the strength to overcome -- all of these things live in the stories my family shares as an inheritance that grows as we invest in it each successive generation.

"I draw creative strength from my roots buried deep in south Louisiana. Until the storm, I did not appreciate how much those roots were the veins connecting my heart to the body of historical experience that gave birth to the man I am today, and the man -- and the artist -- I am becoming every day."

Since Hurricane Katrina devastated his native New Orleans in 2005, Pierce has devoted much time and energy helping to rebuild the flood-ravaged Pontchartrain Park, a black middle-class neighborhood which became the first African-American post-war suburb, where was raised by his parents -- his father retired from the military and became a photographer and his mother was a school teacher. "In my family, we have a motto: Don't ever tell me you can't do something."

Throughout the evening, Pierce kept returning to the themes of a love of family and community in describing what brought him back to his roots and the need to do something positive to help in the city's recovery, to pick up the pieces. He so very much wanted to see his city to come back. So, he became a community rebuilder.

Wendell Pierce (right) performing in 'Waiting for Godot'.
The actor said it was a cathartic experience for him
and it reminded him of the power of art.
"It was an awakening."
"After Katrina, there were miles and miles of destruction and nothing there, nothing was right. And yet, we stagger onward rejoicing," said Pierce. One of the ways the actor helped his community rebuild -- and by extension his city -- was by performing in what became a legendary production of Waiting for Godot, which was staged in two of the neighborhoods that were most damaged by Hurricane Katrina. It became a chance for the city of New Orleans to come together and to celebrate "the human capacity for resilience."

In a recent NPR interview, Pierce said performing Waiting for Godot was a cathartic experience for him and it reminded him of the power of art. "It was an awakening. Waiting for Godot, this existential play about two men in this void with only a tree and a road, with no sense of who they are, where they've been, where they hope to do -- a real sense of desperation and loss, awaiting for something to help them something to guide them, to find who they are. They're waiting for Godot. They don't even know what or who Godot is.

"And it's in that moment that they come to the realization in this play that the power that they truly have is within themselves. And Vladimir says, 'At this place in this moment of time all mankind is us.  Let us do something while we have the chance.'"

In his book, Pierce writes of the "collaborative potential that art has to heal ourselves, our families and our communities." On Friday, Pierce reminded us of this, saying: "We reflect on who we are as a society and community. The legacy of New Orleans can be seen through the arts. Everything comes together as we deal with life."

Photo of Wendell Pierce at JCCSF Arts & Ideas: © Michael Dickens, 2015.
Photo of Wendell Pierce in 'Waiting for Godot': Courtesy of Google Images.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Elvis Costello: A master of high fidelity and storytelling, too

Elvis Costello / Charming crowds with his music and storytelling.

Elvis Costello knows how to charm the pants off an audience. He's done it successfully for the past 40 years as one of his generation's greatest songwriters. Now, with a simple wink, a friendly smile, or just the right choice of words and upbeat tone of voice, the bespectacled and iconic English musician who was once described by a critic as a "pop encyclopedia," is delighting crowds with his good-natured manner and geniality of conversation. He's become a master of the craft of storytelling.

Last Thursday evening's City Arts & Lectures event at the Nourse in San Francisco provided Costello with a forum for talking at length about his new memoir -- 'Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink' -- that (at a hefty but very readable 670 pages) shows Costello to be an intelligent, thoughtful, witty and lyrical writer.

In conversation with Dan Stone, editor-in-chief of Radio Silence, Costello showed why he's a wonderful conversationalist and gifted storyteller. Costello stood and read several passages from his memoir that recalled a mostly happy childhood growing up in a musical family in Liverpool, England, and the special relationship he shared with his father, Ross MacManus, who was a professional singer in a popular dance band. The younger MacManus recalled with clarity watching his father play afternoon dance gigs at the Hammersmith Palais in the 1961. By the end of the decade, Costello had gone into the family business, following in both his father's and grandfather's footsteps, and he took the popular music world by storm by the age of 24, replete with his black-framed Buddy Holly glasses.

Over the course of about 80 minutes, there were many funny and good-natured reminisces about Costello's coming of age, including: one of his first jobs as a data-entry clerk for cosmetics giant Elizabeth Arden; the influence of the Beatles on both his and his father's musical careers; coming to play San Francisco for the first time in his early twenties back in the 1970s; and his infamous TV appearance on Saturday Night Live. Costello punctuated his fluid storytelling by sharing many candid family photos that were projected overhead on a giant movie screen for the audience to delight in.

While 'Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink' doesn't adhere to a linear chronology, what I have read thus far has been a fun and enjoyable read, and each chapter presents colorful highlights in Costello's remarkable life. The New York Times called 'Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink' "some of the best writing -- funny, strange, spiteful, anguished -- we've ever had from an important musician."

Throughout last Thursday's conversation and later, during a Question and Answer period with the house lights turned up, we learned why Costello, 61, is truly a music fan and delights in championing the works of other musicians such as country star George Jones, jazz pianist Allen Toussaint, pop composer Burt Bacharach, rock guitarist and producer T Bone Burnett, English singer/songwriter Nick Lowe, former Beatles icon Paul McCartney, and hip hop/neo soul band The Roots, to name just a few whom Costello has collaborated with over the years.

But wait, the best part of the night was yet to come. Without any prompting, Costello asked the audience: "Hey, you wanna hear a song?" The sold-out audience at the Nourse responded by amping up their already enthusiastic applause. Before the cheering could fade, an acoustic Gibson guitar was brought out and handed to Costello to play and, quickly, a stool, microphone and music stand were in place for "the show" to go on.

Thus, Elvis began an impromptu "mini concert" by performing a very meaningful and moving -- and slowed-down -- version of "Every Day I Write the Book" from 1983's Punch the Clock, followed by "I Hear a Melody," originally recorded in 1977 for his debut album My Aim is True. Finally, a medley of "Radio Sweetheart/What Jackie Wilson Said," the former penned by Costello and the latter composed by Van Morrison, brought the crowd to its feet. The night was complete.

Photo images: Courtesy of 'Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink', 2015.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

This "Hamlet" needs to be seen and not just heard

National Theatre Live: Coming to a cinema near you. /
Benedict Cumberbatch in "Hamlet."

Ever wanted to experience the best of British theatre without having to trek to London? Now you can, thanks to National Theatre Live, where all the world's a stage even if the stage is on a big movie screen.

One night recently, my wife and I drove to the Century 14 cineplex in downtown Walnut Creek, Calif., about a half-hour's drive from our East Bay home, where we thrilled to an enjoyable evening of London West End theatre come alive on the big screen.

For just $20 a ticket, we were treated to the National Theatre Live's cinematic presentation of the critically-acclaimed "Hamlet," Lyndsey Turner's monumental Barbican production of the 1603 iconic William Shakespeare play about the melancholy prince of Denmark, that was broadcast to a global audience of more than 225,000 on 1,400 movie theater screens in 25 countries around the world.

I was one of those near quarter-million experiencing one of the greatest moments of theatre I had ever experienced. Yet, what I was watching was more a film than a play, but without any compromise to the live appeal of theatre.

That total represents the largest global audience for a live broadcast of any title in National Theatre Live history. Not to worry if you missed out on the excitement. Additional encores of "Hamlet" are scheduled to be shown in movie theaters later this month.

Since its debut in 2009, among the National Theatre Live presentations beamed to theaters include: "Frankenstein" with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternating between the title role and Dr. Jekyll; "King Lear," produced by Sam Mendes; and "A Streetcar Named Desire," which starred Gillian Anderson.

Throughout, "Hamlet" had plenty of "visual swagger" and, of course, there was an infinitely touching prince, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, whom U.S. audiences have grown to love from his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in "Sherlock" on PBS's Masterpiece.

"If there's one good thing about the avalanche of hype surrounding the (Hamlet) production, it's that it made Shakespeare seem sexy. That's quite a feat," wrote Lyn Gardner in The Guardian, one of London's pre-eminent newspapers and news websites.

"The production has been accused by several critics of being overly cinematic, but its visual swagger,  with its indigo hues, comes into its own on the screen. It would be worrying if this production set a precedent for stage shows that are directed and designed with an eye to the live screening and a global audience rather than those seeing it in a theatre," added Gardner.

On the night we watched "Hamlet" -- October 15 -- the audience was comprised mostly of middle-aged suburban adults. There were the curious fans like us, who were eager to see Cumberbatch tackle the title role of Hamlet -- both as a prep-school misfit and as a toy soldier -- and to embrace and enjoy outstanding theatre. In addition to Cumberbatch, there were stellar performances given by Ciarán Hinds as Claudius and Sian Brooke as Ophelia.

The only thing missing that would have made our night more complete -- and something that makes attending West End theatre unique to an American -- was a vendor selling ice cream cups in the stalls during intermission.

Seeing National Theatre Live's "Hamlet" reinvented for a 21st Century audience reminded me of this: "Hamlet" needs to be seen and not just heard. And, seeing a larger-than-life Cumberbatch up-close and personal for three hours added up to one hell of a wonderful night of theatre on the big screen.

Photo: Courtesy of Google Images.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

In 'Fast Forward', Joe Jackson continues his restless pursuit of musical adventure

Joe Jackson / His new album Fast Forward was recorded in four different cities.

Sometimes I look at the Moon
And I think I know just how she feels
Going round and round us again
As we go round the Sun
Watching us as fools and geniuses rush in
And you and me age disgracefully
And have way too much fun.

~ From Fast Forward by Joe Jackson

Fast Forward is Joe Jackson's
 first album of original material
 since 2008.
Fast Forward is British singer/songwriter Joe Jackson's first album of original material since 2008. The album was developed out of an idea to record a series of four EPs, each relating to a specific favorite city of Jackson's. The final product is comprised of 16 songs -- four sets of four songs each which were recorded in the cities of New York City, Amsterdam, Berlin and New Orleans.

Each set includes a different group of supporting musicians and each takes on a slightly different tone. In addition to the 14 new songs penned by Jackson, there are two covers, including a remake of Television's "See No Evil" and a rendition of the 1930s German cabaret tune "Good Bye Jonny." Collectively, Fast Forward is reminiscent of Jackson's Night and Day. From start of finish, this group of musical compositions blend together like a song cycle.

Jackson told Salon.com that he had spent a lot of time accumulating songs. "I was sitting on a big pile of songs, and I was looking for a way to organize them. (When) it started off, the idea was rather than doing a whole album was to work on three or four songs at a time, maybe do a series of EPs. The idea grew from there."

Joe Jackson debuted new material
during his recent concert at
the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass
Festival in San Francisco.
I had the opportunity to see the 61-year-old Jackson debut some of his new material ("If It Wasn't For You" and "Ode To Joy") from Fast Forward as well as perform some old favorites ("Is She Really Going Out With Him", "It's Different For Girls" and "Sunday Papers") when he played the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass music festival earlier this month in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Jackson's slick urbanity on keyboards and vocals stood out front and center throughout his 50-minute, 10-song set, which was was greeted with enthusiastic applause by thousands of fans who packed the Towers of Gold Stage on the western edge of Lindley Meadow.

In a recent interview published by Stereogum, Jackson discussed Fast Forward, saying it "has more words than anything else I've written.

On 'Fast Forward', Joe Jackson said:
"I imagined having a time machine,
and hitting 'fast forward' until I'm far
enough in the future to look back at
the present and make sense of it."
"It just kept growing and growing. I imagined having a time machine, and hitting 'fast forward' until I'm far enough in the future to look back at the present and make sense of it," he said. "We've got the past all figured out (or think we do) -- and we can imagine the future as anything we want. So it's only the present that's baffling and maddening. And I think we're living in a confused and anxious time. The commentary out there is extremely divided, either 'we're living in a golden age' or 'we're all screwed.'"

Jackson said he started with the chord changes, "which constantly cycle through different keys until they end with there started, only to start again.

"That triggered thoughts about how things are always changing, yet in some ways stay the same, or go backwards. The lyrics are full of ironies and contradictions."

Throughout 'Fast Forward', there is
strong musicianship and diverse,
well-crafted songs.
Among the musicians who contributed to Fast Forward are longtime Jackson bassist Graham Maby as well as jazz musicians Bill Frisell on guitar and Regina Carter on violin. Throughout, there is strong musicianship and diverse, well-crafted songs.

One of the great things I like about Jackson and what continues to draw my attention to his music is his restless pursuit of musical adventure. In "Kings of the City," Jackson crafts a lovely pop song complete with wit, style and undeniably meaningful lyrics:

We're the A Team -- the White Knights
And we want it all
We got the big dream
And the bright lights
But we don't see the stars any more.

While the Berlin song quartet turned out to be the darkest of the four, it yielded one of the album's loveliest tunes, "The Blue Time," which highlights Jackson's soulful vocals and supreme keyboard stylings coupled with the tender guitar work of Dirk Berger and an understated trumpet solo by Dima Bondarev.

You come to me in the Blue Time
Between the night and the day
Always too soon for the sunrise
Always too late for a second chance.

Fast Forward is Joe Jackson's return
 to pop songwriting. The album is
filled full of bittersweet songs that
are tight and melodic.
While many of the songs on Fast Forward are bittersweet, they are tight and melodic. One is even unambiguous, "Ode to Joy," which has become a favorite of mine. It's the final song on the album and it features three musicians from the New Orleans funk troupe Galactic, plus a horn section featuring Donald Harrison, Jr. on alto saxophone.

"It says, don't forget, there really is such a thing as Joy, even if it's not always there when you want it," Jackson said during an interview with music magazine Relix. "I wanted to get some New Orleans flavor in the context of something that really isn't New Orleans music. There's also a little altered quote in there from Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy' from the Ninth Symphony. Everyone steals; I reckon you may as well steal from the best."

We can all be joyful for Jackson's return to pop songwriting -- and he does it with a clear voice and a conscience. "A few of the songs could've been done anywhere, to be honest, but you know, I ended up dividing them up and in the process some things happened that I didn't expect to happen," Jackson told Salon.com. ... But I really like them all equally. If somebody just asked me which was my favorite, no way I'm gonna answer that."

All photos: © Michael Dickens, 2015.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass: The wonderful sounds of autumn return to San Francisco's Golden Gate Park

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass / One of the premiere music festivals
in the country -- and it's free, too!

The first weekend of October holds a special significance for my wife and me because it's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass weekend. What has become one of the premier music festivals in the country over the past 15 years has become an annual highlight of our San Francisco cultural calendar.

Oh, by the way, did I mention Hardly Strictly is free, too?

There's no place better to be in San Francisco on a gorgeous, beautiful autumn weekend than in Golden Gate Park at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, the late Warren Hellman's gift to The City. Although the Bay Area billionaire investment banker and benefactor -- himself a spirited banjo player and a lover of bluegrass music -- died in 2011, he left an endowment to ensure its existence for many years to come. There are no corporate sponsors.

Larger than life / Likeness of Warren Hellman
looks out over the Banjo Stage at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.
In 2012, one of the meadows used for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass was renamed Hellman Hollow to honor Hellman's memory. On the Banjo Stage at Hellman Hollow, a giant likeness of Hellman's smiling face is included on the stage's backdrop scrim-curtain.

Last weekend, the 15th edition of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass returned to the western half of Golden Gate Park spread out over seven stages with its usual eclectic mix of talent -- over 100 live acts -- including Punch Brothers, Gillian Welch, Ry Cooder, Boz Scaggs, Joe Jackson, T Bone Burnett, Los Lobos, Neko Case, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Steve Earle and perennial closer Emmylou Harris.

Americana singer Lera Lynn / Her music has been
featured in the HBO series "True Detective".
For the estimated three-quarters of a million of music lovers who were expected to descend upon the Park over the festival's three days, filling the lawns, crowding into the hills and even dotting a few treetops, HSB 15 offered a little something for everyone's music palette: traditional bluegrass (Cinch Mountain Boys), progressive bluegrass (Punch Brothers), country (LeeAnn Womack), folk (Laura Marling), Americana (Felice Brothers), and roots rock (Steve Earle). Add to the mix some English pop and soul (Joe Jackson and Paul Weller), American Chicano rock (Los Lobos) and Celtic rock (Flogging Molly) and it all added up to a treasure trove of great music riches at this year's festival.

My wife and I ventured out from our East Bay home across the Bay via BART and rode the N Judah Muni Metro train out to 19th Avenue and walked a mile or so to the Park for the first two days of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass -- and we were thrilled by what we heard. On Friday, we arrived early afternoon in time to camp out on the Marx Meadow grounds in front of the Rooster Stage to enjoy the pleasing sounds of the Felice Brothers and Laura Marling.

Chris Thile of Punch Brothers / Spirited and spontaneous.
Then, we sprinted across the grounds to catch the exciting Punch Brothers, led by the very spirited mandolinist Chris Thile, who lit up the Banjo Stage with their progressive bluegrass sound. How best to describe them? I'll defer to The Times of London, which once described the Punch Brothers' sound as "bluegrass instrumentation and spontaneity in the strictures of modern classical" as well as "American country-classical chamber music." Included in their set list was "Passepied" by classical composer Claude Debussy, which was warmly received by the overflow crowd, and they closed with a medley of "Magnet/Alone, Together" by the Strokes.

I later learned that there's a wonderful story behind the band's name. It comes from a critical line of an earworm jingle in the Mark Twain short story "A Literary Nightmare." In it, the chorus of the jingle consists of two lines, "Punch, brother, punch with care, punch in the presence of the passenjare," that are said to be the mantra of railroad conductors.

An American rocker / T Bone Burnett sang protect songs.
Finally, we arrived at the Swan Stage in Lindley Meadow by late afternoon to catch the beginning of a tremendous set of Dylanesque "protest" rock by the innovative American songwriter-producer T Bone Burnett. He was a guitarist in Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue band of the 1970s and later went on to unparalleled acclaim for his work with artists like Elvis Costello and for producing the Grammy Award-winning "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack. Soon, the sun faded out over the nearby Pacific Ocean, and it was time to return home.

On Saturday, we eagerly returned and camped out on the far end of Lindley Meadow at the Towers of Gold Stage, the western-most stage on the festival grounds for much of the afternoon, listening to Lera Lynn, whose work has been featured on HBO's True Detective crime drama series while awaiting for Joe Jackson and Boz Scaggs to take the stage. Toting a picnic basket full of food and beverages, we unfurled a large beach towel on the Lindley Meadow grounds and soaked up some sunshine and good sounds.

Fast forward / Joe Jackson still steppin' out in song.
"Thank you music lovers," Jackson said early during his set of rich and rewarding old faves ("It's Different For Girls", "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" and "Sunday Papers") and new songs ("If It Wasn't For You" and "Ode To Joy") from his first new studio album in seven years, "Fast Forward," which was released a day before his Hardly Strictly Bluegrass appearance.

"We're soldiering on. We learned 40 songs for this tour. If I f*ck up the words, blame the sun!" the ever-restless Jackson joked.

In his defense, Jackson was blinded by the bright sun, despite wearing shades, and his ability to rely upon an iPad that contained song lyrics propped up on his grand piano was all but stymied. Still, the dapper Jackson remained a good sport through it all, and his 50-minute, 10-song set was much enjoyed and appreciated by all.

Boz Scaggs / Having a lot of fun with music, more than ever.
Later, it was time to enjoy the legendary guitarist and vocalist Boz Scaggs, whose hour-long set showed a willingness to wander in several musical directions, including rock, jazz, soul and tango. As Scaggs closed with his mega-hit "Lido Shuffle," the sun began to fade just a bit on what was a lovely afternoon of music that passed much too quickly.

On our way out of the festival, we paused for a few minutes on the periphery of the Banjo Stage grounds to catch a few songs by iconic roots rockers Steve Earle & the Dukes.

As much as we would have liked coming back for a third day of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass on Sunday, we were both musically and physically spent. But it felt good. Instead, from the comforts of home, we caught portions of sets by Neko Case, Los Lobos and DeVotchKa via the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass live stream to whet our music appetite.

Paul Weller / His ever-changing moods.
Year after year, the HSB festival organizers out-do themselves and make it one of the most outstanding -- and uniquely satisfying -- music festivals in the country. It keeps getting bigger and better without becoming commercial.

We look forward to returning next year and doing it all over again.

To see a complete list of artists who performed at the 2015 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival as well as to link to the webcast archive of selected performances:


All photographs © Michael Dickens, 2015.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A light show seen for miles and miles and miles

"You cannot look up at the night sky on the Planet Earth and not wonder what it's like to be up there among the stars," the actor Tom Hanks once said. "And I always look up at the moon and see it as the single most romantic place within the cosmos."

Light show fantastic / Sunday night's total lunar eclipse.

Imagine, the rare phenomenon that was Sunday night's sight of a total lunar eclipse of a harvest moon, hanging in the sky painted a coppery red. It coincided with a "super-moon," which happens when a full moon makes its closest approach to planet Earth. The result is the moon appears bigger and brighter than usual.

Added together, the night sky's theatrics provided everyone with a celestial show for the ages.

I'll admit, I was among the admirers who stood in awe in the middle of our residential cul-de-sac, along with my wife and a neighboring family of four, together, watching what unfolded in the nighttime sky at its peak between 8 and 9 o'clock Pacific Daylight Time.

Words like "amazing" and "miracle" were among the many gushing adjectives that came up during conversation of our shared experience.

Earlier in the day, I was skeptical that our view would be tarnished because of low-hanging clouds over the San Francisco Bay Area. However, as the afternoon faded to evening, a nice window of opportunity for viewing the total lunar eclipse occurred when the cloud cover above us cleared -- as if on command. So, without worry, it was on with the show.

Meanwhile, as I checked my Facebook news feed throughout the day, I realized the enormity of the event -- and its interest wasn't confined just to a U.S. audience. A dear friend and astronomy enthusiast of mine, Mayssa Yazidi, who resides eight time zones away from me in the North Africa country of Tunisia, eagerly awaited in the wee hours of early Monday morning for her chance to see the total lunar eclipse. In the hours leading up for both of us to see the big event, we exchanged several messages that were filed with hope and optimism. And, we followed up enthusiastically after daylight broke for both of us Monday, recalling what each of us saw from our respective sides of the world.

Sunday night's total lunar eclipse as seen from my patio deck. /
The umbra was beginning to leave the moon at 8:54 p.m. PDT.

When the harvest moon finally appeared high over the horizon of the Oakland hills, shortly after 8 o'clock Sunday night, I could see the total eclipse was already in full effect. While it proved challenging to photograph the total eclipse, both with my DSLR camera as well as my iPhone 6, the memory of it all lives on in my mind.

Sometimes, that's all that matters.

Photos: © Michael Dickens, 2015.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

"Baseballet": Baseball meets ballet and it's a perfect fit

Baseballet / When performance art combines with sports
on one of the most scenic sports stages in the world.

The kid can dance.

The "kid" is Weston Krukow, who is the youngest of five children of former Major League baseball pitcher and current San Francisco Giants television analyst Mike Krukow.

As a kid, "I was always dancing," the younger Krukow said. "I never stopped thinking about it." He regularly put on after-dinner shows at home for his family. The older Krukow adds: "We encouraged him to take dance classes." Now, Weston Krukow is a professional dancer for the famed San Francisco company Smuin Ballet. He's expressive, tight with his choreography, entertaining and, most of all, athletic. He can jump, he can tumble.

So, it should come as no surprise that Weston Krukow has created "Baseballet," which combines baseball inspired movements with traditional ballet movements together with athletic prowess set on one of the most scenic sports stages in the world. Interspersed throughout the eight-minute film are candid observations from both Krukows.


Weston Krukow (left) and Ben Needham-Wood /
Moving about the AT&T Park infield, the San Francisco
Giants' home ballpark, in "Baseballet."
After watching "Baseballet," the similarity between baseball and ballet movements becomes clear. It is brought out by the various strength-power-movement components that the charismatic Krukow and his dance partner, Ben Needham-Wood, exhibit as they gracefully move about the AT&T Park infield, the Giants' home ballpark, where "Baseballet" was beautifully filmed recently one early morning.

On his Instagram account, Weston Krukow wrote: "Getting up at 4:30 totally worth it."

In "Baseballet," Mike Krukow recalls a dinner conversation between him, his son and Needham-Wood. "They were marveling at how graceful baseball players were," he said. "There's a lot of ballet in baseball, just by the way they move ... there was rhythm. Rhythm was constantly being referred to: the rhythm of the pitcher, the rhythm of the hitter, the rhythm defensively. And, I think that was interesting to the dancers because their whole life is about rhythm."

Said Needham-Wood: "We found there were so many parallels between this idea of legacy where, in baseball, there's the previous generation that has to train the new guys exactly how to throw the perfect pitch, exactly how to come in contact with the ball. So, there a finesse to it you can't learn from a textbook. It has to be taught to you. And, it's the same with dance. One generation has to teach the next generation, otherwise the art form is going to die out."

In a 2014 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Mike Krukow said: "Some of the ballet techniques that have been around for a hundred years, I wish I could have used some of them as a pitcher.

Weston and Mike Krukow /
Together, sharing a conversation about life
in "Baseballet."
"I used to think I worked hard. I never did what Wes does. ... He's in a lifestyle directly related to what I did, and I'm reliving my past through him, in a world I knew nothing about. It's opened my eyes not just to dance, but to many things. We've just been intrigued by this journey. It's been one of the most exhilarating things that's ever happened to our entire family. It's fantastic."

Adds the soft-spoken Wes: "I live with my hero," he said, in describing his relationship with his father. "I talk with him all the time about what I'm going through emotionally and physically, and get advice from him."

Is there a baseball lesson that Wes has absorbed from his Dad? Yes, indeed. "As a professional, you have to find a balance and moderation in all of it," he said."The thing I've been able to get from (Mike) is to ground yourself, be humble. You're never as bad as you think you are, and you're never as good as you think you are."

In watching "Baseballet," not only are we witnessing the beauty of sport and dance combined, we are also seeing a loving father and his son sharing a conversation about life. It's one generation passing along wisdom to another.

Seeing the younger Krukow dance is an emotional experience for his Dad. "It's emotional," Mike Krukow says near the end of "Baseballet." He admits: "It brings tears to my eyes every time I watch him dance. I cloud up because he's doing what he's needs to do, what he wants to do. It has made all of us in our family very proud."

When he performs in front of his Dad, it's game on! "I pull out all the stops," Weston Krukow says. "I love it because it's such a nostalgic feeling for me. It's where I can feel like I'm performing for my hero."

Photos: Courtesy of CSNBayArea.com.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Yes, folks, fairytales do come true at the U.S. Open

Flavia Pennetta / Unlikely but refreshing rise to the top; going out a champion.

Yes, folks, fairytales do come true -- even in tennis.

One need only look at Flavia Pennetta's unlikely rise to the top in winning the 2015 U.S. Open women's singles championship last Saturday over her long-time friend and former childhood doubles partner, Roberta Vinci. It was a refreshing conclusion to what had been a tense and anxious two weeks of hard-court tennis that included Serena Williams' dream of winning all four Grand Slams (Australian, French, Wimbledon, U.S. Open) during the same calendar year crushed only 24 hours earlier by Vinci in an improbable three-set defeat. It came after Pennetta upset No. 2 seed Simona Halep in the other semifinal.

When the 23rd-seeded Penneta beat the unseeded Vinci 7-6 (4), 6-2 on Arthur Ashe Stadium in the first All-Italian U.S. Open, she became a first-time Grand Slam champion. It broke a string of four straight Grand Slams won by Williams. The Pennetta-Vinci match was a throwback to what tennis once was circa the 1970s: lots of serve and volley, one-handed backhands, drop volleys, angled shots and, best of all, no grunting.

Joy and jubilitation /
Pennetta (right) is embraced by Vinci at the net.
As one might imagine, the scene at the net with Pannetta and Vinci turned into a celebration of unadulterated joy and jubilation. It showed on their faces. It showed in their body language, too, which included a long and embracing hug.

There were plenty of tears to go around for everyone to share.

Pennetta's triumph at the U.S. Open was witnessed by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who flew across the Atlantic from Italy on short notice just to watch the final. He brought along Pennetta's fiancé, Fabio Fognini, himself a tennis pro, who earlier in the tournament banished Rafael Nadal in the third round before bowing in the next round. He had flown home to prepare for Italy's Davis Cup tie this weekend.

Roberta Vinci (left) and Flavia Pennetta /
Happy together during the trophy presentation.
During the post-match awards presentation on the court, the 26th-ranked Pennetta (she rose to No. 8 with her U.S. Open triumph) shared a confession with the sell-out crowd.

"Before I started this tournament, like one month ago, I made a big decision in my life," she said. "This is the way I would like to say goodbye to tennis."

Pennetta, who at the tennis-old age of 33 years and 201 days, shockingly announced her retirement from tennis. She revealed her news to Vinci just prior to the trophy presentation while the two were seated on chairs together at court side sharing a moment of laughter.

Pennetta will finish her off her tennis commitments by playing in a few tournaments in Europe and Asia this fall, then call it a career year's end.

"I'm really happy," she admitted. "It's what all players think to want to do, going out with this kind of big trophy. ... I can't think to finish a better way."

So, just what does Pennetta plan to do with her life after tennis?

"I would like to have a family in the future," she said, during a post-match press conference, "but it's not something I would love to have right now." First is "to know who I am," away from tennis, "what I like to do" and "how is the life with Fabio going to be."

Photos: Courtesy of Google Images. Video: Courtesy of YouTube.